That’s not MY Rush!

I’ve been a Rush fan for more than 35 years; they’ve been my favourite band since the very first time I heard them, in 1977. (You can see them as I saw them for the first time [on the 1977 Juno awards] here.) So you probably think I was pretty happy when the long critically-despised band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. And I was. It’s not that membership in the Hall is all that big a deal to me; like most long-time fans, I’d long since made my peace with liking a band that most people hate/make fun of. But it’s still nice to see laudatory articles in the mainstream press, even if they’re clearly not coming from a place of deep affection. (Macleans’ Colby Cosh is a big exception – see here for an example of Cosh’s writing on Rush.) And it’s great to have lived long enough to see Neil Peart come out of his shell.

(By the way, I guess I’ll have to disavow my “when did Rush get old?” post, as they look [and sound!] pretty frisky on the Clockwork Angels Tour Blu-ray…)

However, I’ve noticed that I have a weird feeling when I read these stories about Rush in the mainstream media: a feeling that the band they’re talking about is not MY Rush. Maybe all fans feel like this, I don’t know. Anyway, I got to thinking about how MY Rush is different from the one I read and hear about so much these days. There are three main points of difference:

1) Alex Lifeson is the heart and soul of my Rush.

The Rush I read and hear about seems to be composed of 50% Neil Peart, 40% Geddy Lee and 10% Alex Lifeson. Even though Rush as a unit are usually lauded for their musicianship, if you look at those lists the mainstream music press (like Rolling Stone) publish (100 Greatest …), you will note that Neil Peart appears at or near the top of the rock drummers list, as does Geddy Lee for rock bassists, while poor Alex is near the bottom of the rock guitarists top 100 (if he makes the cut at all). But, to me, Alex defines the Rush sound. He is the man. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, when Rush moved away from a guitar-dominated sound and turned up the keyboards starting with the Signals album, the band entered a period that many Rush fans like to conveniently forget/ignore. Unfortunately, I remember Hold Your Fire all too well. No one was happier than me when the band realized they had lost something important when they made Lifeson step back into the shadows.

2) In my Rush, Neil Peart’s drumming has ruined more than a few songs.

I was listening to an interview with Geddy Lee once where he mentioned that Peart likes to play “at the back end of the beat.” When I heard that, it made sense of something I had long noticed in some Rush songs: Peart’s drumming sometimes makes the song drag a bit. The best Rush songs combine crunching power with incredible agility, but sometimes Peart’s drumming interferes with the agility part. The best example is the song Between Sun and Moon from the Counterparts album. I think Peart’s drumming ruins that song, which would otherwise be one of my favourite Rush songs.

3) My Rush is saddled with a lousy lyricist

Speaking of Neil, he seems like a real smart guy but he is very often too smart for his own good when it comes to writing lyrics. By far his biggest failing is his love of wordplay. Glenn Gould, in So You Want to Write a Fugue, said “Never be clever for the sake of being clever.” If only Peart had heeded this advice, we would have been spared lyrics like “In different circles we keep holding our ground/Indifferent circles, we keep spinning round and round” or “How can anybody be enlightened/Truth is, after all, so poorly lit” (not to mentioned the entirety of Anagram (for Mongo)). In fact,the whole Snakes and Arrows album is weighed down by lousy lyrics. I’m very aware than I’m in the minority among Rush fans on this point; I guess a book like this represents the other point of view.

OK, enough of that. Now to go watch Lifeson absolutely nail the solo on “The Big Money” on the Clockwork Angels Tour Blu-ray. Not bad for a 60-year-old.

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My pet peeve with surveys

I don’t know how many opinion researchers are themselves members of online survey panels. I’m a member of a couple, mainly because I like to see what other researchers are doing in terms of survey and questionnaire design; to keep up with the current state of the art. Of course, that means seeing what not to do, as well as what I should adapt to my own surveys.

I read lots of blogs from market researchers describing problems with questionnaire design (things like poor scales, biased questions, etc.) but I don’t often see the problem that I find is my pet peeve with surveys. This problem makes it difficult to do that most basic thing, the thing that I try to do with every survey I take: answer the questions as honestly as I can. It’s perhaps easiest to illustrate this problem by way of example.

Recently, I was completing a survey in which the screening questions were related to car ownership. The survey asked if I owned a car (I do) and then asked whether I purchased or leased the vehicle (the former). The next question asked whether I planned to purchase a vehicle in the next 3 years. Again, the answer was yes. The survey then went on to ask a series of questions about what I was looking for in a car dealer. The problem? I do not intend to buy my next vehicle from a dealer. When my current car is paid off (in about a year), I plan to drive it for another year or so, and then sell it and buy a used car for cash. I have no plans to go to a dealer at all. The designer of the questionnaire I was completing clearly never considered this possibility. The questions assumed I would be shopping for a new vehicle at a dealership, and there was no way to skip the dealership-related questions.

Another example: I am a member of a survey panel for a gas station chain. I purchase gas from this chain occasionally, but always by paying at the pump. In a couple of cases when pump payment was not working, I would go inside the store to pay, but I never buy (or even look at) anything inside the store; I just pay for my gas and go. I have completed a number of surveys for this chain that ask a bunch of questions about my preferences in terms of what the stores should sell: should they sell sandwiches (and what type?), coffee (what price?) and so on. Again, I never have the opportunity to say that I don’t shop at the convenience store and have no interest in what they are selling, so I either have to answer all the questions “don’t know” or answer as though I was a shopper. But, if I do the latter, are the answers I give meaningful?

I believe that a lot of what guides this type of questionnaire design is an effort to broaden the response base for the key questions to ensure they have as many respondents as possible and thus reduce the margin of error for those questions. The problem is that many of the respondents they end up with are people like me -very occasional or never-users of the products/services they are asking about. To take another example I have experienced first-hand, if I visited a fast-food restaurant once seven months ago, because I was out on my motorcycle and needed a (aptly named, in my case) “butt break”, does that mean that I should be answering a long series of questions about what I want to see in fast-food restaurants just because I screening in by virtue of having visited a fast-food restaurant in the past year?

It’s not so bad if you have an “other” write-in option where you can describe your situation and then the researcher can decide whether they still want to keep you, but it’s more common to just have to go through question after question where there just isn’t a response choice that really reflects your situation.

One thing I’ve learned from this is to always include an open-ended “comment” question at the end of my surveys so that, if I have inadvertently made a similar error, the respondent can tell me that the questions I have included simply are not relevant to their particular situation.

Have you had similar experiences completing surveys? Other survey pet peeves? Let me know in the comments!

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How did I not know that?!?

I was reading something on Twitter the other night when I came across the word “parochial”. Now, this is certainly not the first time I have ever seen this word. In fact, I have come across it many times. However, when I saw it a tweet, devoid of context, I realized something: I really did not know what the word meant.

It was kind of odd. I consider myself reasonably well-read and articulate, and I’m certainly not shy about looking up any word I do not know. But I realized that, in this case, I had just never bothered to look up parochial. I don’t know why or how, but I had somehow made it to the age of 50 without ever knowing what parochial meant. (If you don’t either, go ahead and look it up now. I won’t tell.)

Map of UK by Tourizm Maps © 2003

And this is not the only time recently that I had to ask myself, “How did you NOT know that?” A couple of weeks ago, I was looking at a map of England (I can’t remember why) and I noticed that Scotland is attached to it. Yes, believe it or not, I did not know that. I always thought that Scotland was an island, like Ireland. I have looked at maps of the world, of Europe, countless times in my life, but I somehow never noticed that Scotland and England are contiguous. It’s amazing (not to mention embarrassing!)

When I learned that you don’t have to swim or take a ferry to get to Scotland from England, I flashed back to another time I was made aware of one of these “holes” in my knowledge base. When I was in my early 30s, I moved from the Halifax area to Montreal. I made that trip by car, alone (in a 11-year-old Subaru that I was sure was not going to survive the trip. It did, barely.) Anyway, as I neared Montreal, I noticed that there were signs indicating various bridges. I bypassed these, of course – you do not need to cross a bridge to get to Montreal! As the tall buildings of downtown Montreal receded in my rearview mirror, I still didn’t understand. I actually had to stop at a service station and ask for directions before I learned that you do, indeed, have to cross a bridge (or use a tunnel) to get to Montreal. And so I learned, just shy of my 33rd birthday, that Montreal is an island. How did I NOT know that?

How about you? Any embarrassing “holes” in your knowledge that you were made aware of at a painfully advanced age? Let me know in the comments, if you dare!

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The end of the search for (audio) fidelity (or, ode to Technics SU-V98)

I own a Technics SU-V98 integrated amplifier. I bought it some 20 years ago from Grenada (remember them?) when they were getting out of the audio equipment rent-to-own business to concentrate on VCRs. That amp, with the matching tuner and Technics 200-watt speakers (along with a turntable, CD changer and cassette deck), powered me through my personal Golden Age of music listening. Up until that purchase, I had been trying to improve my audio gear (within my basically non-existent budget) from the time I received my first portable record player as a birthday present. Sound quality was important to me then. I remember taping music over the air from an AM transistor radio as a kid and feeling so dissatisfied with the sound. With the advent of FM, sound quality improved, but FM radio was no substitute for a well-cared-for LP (or, later, CD) played on a good sound system.

But my search for better and better sound changed with that Technics purchase. I remember quite clearly feeling, when I heard that system, that the sound was good enough to satisfy me. I knew (and the past 20 years have borne this out) that I would never again feel the need to “upgrade”.

This is not to say that the Technics system is an “audiophile” one, or that I am an audiophile myself. I simply had an internal sense of what I was looking for and, when I found it, I did not feel the need to go further.

So why the sudden attack of nostalgia? Well, I mentioned that I still own the Technics amp.  Although that’s true, I rarely use it for listening to music anymore. It is now mainly used as  a “home theatre” amplifier (despite being “only” stereo) for our living room TV/DVD.  In fact, I don’t listen to very much music at home anymore. I still listen to music a lot, but most of my listening is done either on the street (on my smartphone through earbuds) or in the car (on my docked smartphone plugged into the factory stereo in my Toyota Corolla). Music at home is now basically just background music at mealtimes or in the backyard. Gone are the days of listening to music as an activity in and of itself.  I no longer find myself sitting alone in a room, positioning myself so as to maximize sound quality, listening to music while doing nothing else. And I used to do that a lot. I listed “listening to music” as a hobby on applications for summer jobs without a second thought. It was as logical as listing “reading” as a hobby. But somewhere along the way, I changed. It’s been ten years or so since I sat and carefully listened to a CD (I think it was Rush’s “Vapour Trails,” for what it’s worth.)

It’s not just me who changed. I see around me a fundamental shift in how music is enjoyed. Oh, audiophiles still exist, and Neil Young recently caused a stir with his comments about the poor quality of current digital audio formats (see here for an audiophile discussion on Young’s comments) but, as the linked piece points out, the real loss of fidelity comes from the playback systems people are using, not the digital source material. And those playback systems are tied to people’s lifestyles, not their desire for musical fidelity. Music today is mostly listened to on portable MP3 players/smartphones, using earbuds; on computers, through laptop speakers or relatively cheap powered speakers; or on car systems, where volume and (especially) bass trump fidelity. (If you have to buy a pad to keep your subwoofer from rattling your licence plate, you ain’t interested in fidelity.) Most people are buying compressed music in the form of single-track digital downloads and eschewing CDs.

Of course, I may be wrong and the changes in my listening habits are merely a result of advancing age. I do see some evidence that sound quality (if not fidelity in the audiophile sense) is making a comeback, within the bounds of current tech (I’m thinking of Beats by Dr. Dre and Apple’s AirPlay system). How about you? Has the way you listen to music changed over time? Are you more or else interested in sound quality than you used to be? Comment, as always, are welcome!

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Short take: Why the government will ultimately get a pass on the F-35 fiasco

I follow a number of journalists and economists on Twitter. This gives one a very interesting perspective on current events. By following economists, you learn why everything you (as an average Joe) know about economics is wrong. By following journalists, you learn what to be outraged over.

The latest outrage is the planned purchase of F-35 fighter planes by the Harper Government (HG for short). It appears that the HG’s estimate of $16 billion for the purchase of the jets is off by some $10 billion (at least!) The $10 billion is the estimated cost of operating the F-35s over a 20 year period, which the HG conveniently neglected to mention. Andrew Coyne (one sharp – and funny – cookie, by the way: follow him on Twitter @acoyne), writing in the National Post, described the HG’s handling of the F-35 file as:

“a fiasco from top to bottom, combining lapses of professional ethics, ministerial responsibility and democratic accountability into one spectacular illustration of how completely our system of government has gone to hell.”

And he may indeed by right. Even so, I believe the HG will ultimately emerge from the F-35 affair relatively unscathed. I rest this belief on two key points.

The first is the fact that the average Canadian believes the HG lies about everything anyway. Just like they believe the Opposition does, and all politicians do. Here’s what I mean: If you gathered a bunch of average Canadians in a bar and said to them, “The HG has said that the F-35s (which do not yet exist, by the way) will cost $16 billion. When all is said and done, do you think the planes will really have cost this much?”, I would wager that the vast majority would say “No way.” If you pressed them, they would say the planes will probably cost more. “How much more?” “Hard to say.” “Could it be $5 billion more?” “Yeah, maybe.” “Could it be $10 billion?” “Wouldn’t be surprised.”

Remember, we live in a world where the vast majority of MAJOR public expenditures, for whatever purpose, seem to invariably come in way over budget (and behind schedule). It would be absolutely no surprise to anyone to see that the current estimates (for something that extends so far into the future) are way off base.

The second pillar of my argument relates to the “HG lied to Parliament/Canadians” angle, which a number of media stories have played up. The HG has tried to get out in front of this by saying the difference is simply due to different accounting methods. As Defence Minister Peter MacKay said on CTV’s Question Period:

“This is the way that accounting has been always been done for major procurements. We do not calculate as part of the acquisitions costs what we pay military personnel. Or the fuel. Or the cost of keeping that existing equipment running.”

Of course, as Coyne and others have pointed out, this runs counter to Treasury Board directives (not to mention generally accepted accounting methods for these types of estimates). A number of journalists have used the example of an automobile purchase to illustrate how ridiculous it is to not include operating costs in the overall cost estimate.

But therein lies the reason that the HG will get a pass on this file. It will not be at all difficult for the average Canadian to believe that the HG honestly felt that the relevant number to communicate to the public was the “sticker price” of the F-35s. After all, when we are buying a car, the price of the car itself is paramount. Yes, we know that we have to pay for gas, insurance, maintenance and repair, etc., but (if you already own a car) you pay for those things right now, anyway. Yes, if you feel you need to economize, you will perhaps look for a car that is easier on gas (a 4-cylinder, rather than the 6 you have now), or one that is cheaper to repair (maybe domestic, rather than imported), but this is an impressionistic exercise and, crucially, is usually looked at separately from the purchase price of the cr. Most people do not calculate the actual projected operating costs over a 5-year period and include it in the car’s price. And they certainly do not use the actual-5-year-total-cost in conversation: “I can’t believe, when I crunched the numbers, that the Ford Flibertigibit will only cost $79,750 over 5 years. And I’m paying $89,595 for my Volkswagen Whatsit!” No, they say, “I talked the Ford dealer down to $19,995, all in – out the door! Bow down before my haggling skills!”

Bottom line – out here in the real world, no one will be shocked that the F-35 costs will actually be higher than the HG said. And no one will feel particularly “lied to” when they hear the HG’s explanation for the difference.

Comments, as always, are welcome. I approve all comments that are not spam.

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Short take: A proposal to get rid of the “loser” point in hockey

There are a number of things about today’s NHL that annoy me as a hockey fan. The shootout, for one: this is 100% a crapshoot, in my view. The number of teams that make the playoffs, for another. But the one thing that annoys me the most about the NHL is the “loser” point for those teams that lose the game in overtime or the shootout. I know the loser point has contributed to parity in the league, but it has done so by artificially creating a logjam in the standings, especially in the later part of the season. Moving up the standings is difficult even when you’re playing well, as the teams in front of you are frequently picking up points even when they are losing.

There have been occasional proposals to change the system for awarding of points. Most that I have seen have involved making a regulation win more valuable by awarding three points for such a victory. Others have involved simply getting rid of the loser point. This has merit, especially since games can no longer end in ties. (Remember that the original rationale for the loser point was to cut down on the practice of “playing for a tie” to get a point and hold your opponent to one.) With no ties possible, why award a loser point to discourage what can no longer happen?

However, I do not think this proposal goes far enough. What is needed is a system that rewards regulation-time, “regular” victories (that happen because your team played better in the 60 minutes of “real hockey”) and properly penalizes, rather than rewards, losing. I propose the following: two points for a regulation victory, one point for an overtime or shootout victory, and  zero points for a loss.

The main benefit to this system is that teams will be encouraged to play for a regulation win, which (to me) is the desired outcome of any game. If you are unable to beat your opponent fair and square in regulation time (when real 5-on-5 hockey is being played), your punishment is that you only get one point instead of two, even if you win in overtime or the “skills competition.” And there is NO reward for losing.

Now, I’m sure there are plenty of arguments that can be made against this plan, but I am not interested in arguments that speak to “parity” or how the standings will change under this proposal. My rationale for this system is based purely on the principle that a regulation victory is the desired outcome and should be encouraged.

What do you think? Comments, as always, are welcome.

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Has the (hockey) world gone mad?

(Sorry this post is a bit delayed – WordPress problems…)

So, Don Cherry ranted last weekend about there not being enough Ontario-born players on the Toronto Maple Leafs. No, he did. Really. (Read about it here, or see here if you want to watch it in all its video glory.) Now, I’m not a follower or fan of Mr. Cherry, so he might have referenced this belief before, I don’t know. I know what he has said about Europeans and “French guys” (some time ago, granted), but this Ontario thing seemed to come out of left field a bit.

But what was even stranger to me was the reaction. People seemed to actually take this seriously. Yahoo Sports’ Greg Wyshynski provided an analysis (with a big table, no less) and even the (normally) reliably bullshit-averse Ted Bird came down on Cherry’s side on this issue.

Has the world gone mad?

Bird offered that:

“Ontario produces more and better hockey players than any other province or country, and Cherry makes a legitimate hockey point when he says the Leafs are cheating themselves and their fans by not mining talent in their own diamond-rich backyard.”

Now, I don’t know if Ontario really produces more AND better hockey players, but Ted Bird knows more about hockey than I do and I am willing to take his word for it. But, even if that’s the case, why are there none on the Leaf’s roster? Why in the word would a Toronto hockey team pass over the “more and better” local Ontario players to employ the fewer and worse non-Ontario lot? Isn’t it possible that, on a case-by-case basis, the Leafs decided to sign, develop or trade for what looked like the best available player at the time and it just so happened that they were born somewhere else? I find it hard to even imagine how the where-the-player-was-born conversation could arise. When does it happen? Where does place of birth sit in the hierarchy of factors that are used to rate players?

Wyshynski noted the following in his piece (in discussing Cherry’s view that “it’s important to have Ontario-born players on the Leafs”):

“This is a bit more subjective, but we agree with Cherry. First, because it does matter to young players that they have NHLers to look up to; and seeing a guy who played in your youth leagues and grew up in your neighborhood making the show with a team that you root for is a hell of a motivator. Second, because even though the pressure is greater on players who are playing back home, so might the motivation to excel.”

Now, I’ve never played organized ice hockey, but I’m a Canadian and I grew up playing street hockey (and was blessed with enough speed to be not bad at it). The players I worshipped as a youth were chosen for (a) the team they played for (the Habs) and (b) their style of play (Yvan Cournoyer, Guy Lafleur). I didn’t give a hoot where they were born, or grew up, or played junior hockey. And although Wyshynski’s point that someone who “played in your youth leagues and grew up in your neighbourhood making the show with a team you root for is a hell of a motivator” has the ring of truth, the reality is that many, many, many more young players are inspired by NHLers whose skills, heart and work ethic resonate with them (regardless of their origins) than they are by the local boy who made good.

And a final note: even though Ted Bird exonerated Cherry from any accusations that “partisanship and politics” were at play in his rant, does he (or anyone) think for a second that the “fiercely loyal Ontarian” Cherry would say anything different even if Ontario didn’t produce more and better hockey players? My feeling is that Bird so wanted to draw a distinction between Cherry’s views and what Bird characterized as the “tireless drum-beating of Quebec media for more francophones on the Canadiens,” that he basically gave Cherry a pass, regardless of any logic to the contrary. I have to say that I fail to see any difference. Would Bird think the “tireless drum-beating” was OK if francophone areas produced “more and better” hockey players than other areas?

Comments, as always, are welcome.

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